I finally went to Merlin Cycles in Chorley to try one, and instantly decided to buy it. Not everyone gets to spend their Christmas half an hour from Chorley though, so I thought I'd write the review that I'd been looking for.
Now I'll concede straight away that I own the bike. There's no way I can pretend to be objective. On the other hand, I am a hardware reviewer. For the last 12 years I've made my living figuring out what people want from a product and deciding how suitable it is for them. I've carefully placed hundreds upon hundreds of cameras, computers, TVs, phones, and heaven knows what else on a scale ranging from Awesome to Worthless and all points in between (Ok, most of my employers insist on a percentage score or marks out of ten, but really, it's all just an Awesome to Worthless scale). I'm not saying I'm unbiased, but I am level-headed, practical and equipped with a practiced critical eye.
I'm going to resist the urge to write this up the way I would a professional review, as that slightly distant tone would ring false having already pointed out that I own the bike. Besides, it's too exciting a review to write in that dry tone - which should give you a hint as to how I feel about the bike.
Since it was delivered a fortnight ago, my Sensa Umbria Tiagra has had three runs out to Richmond Park, one run out to Bushy Park, and a general potter around the streets. That means I've ridden it on everything from perfect tarmac, to run-down residential roads, to hard packed cinder pathways. It's been on rolling terrain, flat terrain and 6% gradients. Short of a return visit to Mt Ventoux, I'm pretty happy that I've given it a good range of use.
In recent months I've spent the day on both a Specialized Allez and a Trek 1.5 and the Umbria Tiagra compares very nicely with both. It can't match either of them for weight: the Allez weighs in at 9.2Kg compared to the Umbria's 9.8Kg. Trek don't publish bike weights, but from hefting both, I'd guess the 1.5 saves as much weight as the Allez. If you're a weight weenie, the Umbria loses a few points to its most obvious rivals. For me, however, that's not much of an issue - my previous bike was a steel framed Peugeot. To me, the Umbria feels like it's made of rice paper and good intentions. Given that a £560 road bike is almost certainly selling to entry level purchasers or serious roadies looking for a winter bike, it's safe to say there aren't going to be many people fretting about 600g here or there.
More importantly, the Umbria actually beats the Allez for comfort. I feel cheeky saying that, and slightly controversial as well. The Allez has such a fine reputation that it feels a little like libel, but the fact is, on rough surfaces and rutted tarmac, the Umbria doesn't rattle under you as much, nor does it deliver an instantly numbing vibration through your fingers and palms. Given that the Allez has a full carbon fork while the Umbria uses a carbon blades/alu steerer mix, it was a surprise to find the Umbria putting out less buzz: I had thought my first move with the Umbria would be to double-tape the bars. I'm working on the assumption that the sturdier wheels and thickset Ritchey bars are stifling some of the vibration.
Of course, comfort is about more than just material, it's down to the infinite array of configurations into which that material can be arranged. It was the 58cm Sensa Umbria's geometry in particular that sold it to me. A 548mm top tube combined with a long Ritchey stem gives the bike a nice long reach, but the 73.5 degree seat tube angle is comparatively gentle. The result is a bike that that allowed me to stretch into a comfortable, low position without being tipped head first into the cockpit. I'm a self-described lolloping beanpole of a rider, with long legs and a long back, and I like to ride in the drops, so by raising the saddle and taking full advantage of the long top tube I get a sporty but not strenuous position, and a reach that's actually a little longer than on my old 59cm Peugeot, where I always felt hunched over the bars.
Long reach, especially when achieved in part by a long stem, can mean less responsive steering, especially as the Ritchey Logic Curve bars are quite wide as well. A combo like that should feel like steering a bus, but again, for every extreme in one area, there's a compensation in another: a 45mm rake on the fork, which is admittedly about average on anything short of a Kermesse bike, but which is noticeably shorter than on my old Peugeot and which keeps the steering responsive but not jumpy. It never whips itself away from you, but responds as much to your weight as to your steering-you start looking at where you want to go and the Umbria is on its way before you put any real pressure on the bars. Even when rushing down steep inclines, the steering never gets excessively lively, and about the only thing I've had to get used to is the remote possibility of toe-overlap when cornering at low speeds.
Stick it in a big gear and the Umbria actually seems to get smoother and sharper the faster you go. After years of feeling like every high speed effort should result in a juddering hurtle across the tarmac, as greater and greater speeds were achieved by way of more force and less fluency, it's interesting to find myself on a bike that simply takes what I put on the pedals and transfers it to the wheels. You can laugh if you like, but I was genuinely surprised at how easy it was to pick up and maintain a high speed.
For me, this easier power transfer has an added advantage, as I'm trying to break my habit of pedal-mashing and move towards lower gears and higher cadences. The old whirlwind-legs and minimal-motion that high cadence riding used to produce is lessened on the Umbria, with long sessions spinning on the middle ring feeling natural, and seeming to deliver a much better average speed than it used to. That might just be me getting more comfortable with higher cadences, but I'm inclined to think a step-up in frame and component quality might have played a role in it as well.
The componentry is pretty much Tiagra all the way, with the exception of Sora hubs. A Tiagra groupset on a sub-£600 bike is pretty rare, and is a big part in why so many people are fascinated by/suspicious of the Umbria. I know that triple chainsets get sneered at by cycling's aesthetes, but I was desperately grateful for a mess of extra gears when I rented a Tiagra equipped Trek 1.5 for a climb a couple of years ago, and I expect I'll be just as grateful the first time the Umbria hits anything approaching a 9% gradient. The Sora hubs are marginally less satisfying, as they have a reputation for not being as weatherproof as the more expensive models, but in all honesty, just being aware of that fact is the most important step in dealing with it. In the short term, remembering to give the hubs special attention if I've been out in the rain is enough to keep things sweet. In the longer term, who doesn't upgrade their wheels anyway? It's the most telling upgrade you can make to a bike.
On the subject of wheels, and finishing kit in general, it's pretty clear where the price differential between the Umbria and the Trek 1.5 or the Peugeot CR22 comes from. The two nearest Tiagra equipped Alu bikes not only have a slightly more modern geometry and tube profiles, with all the weight saving and strength that brings with it, but they also have full carbon forks, come equipped with pedals and, in the case of the Trek, are adorned with Bontrager wheels, FSA seatposts and the like. I've said before, Bont is Trek's house brand, but it's a well know and trusted house brand compared to Sensa's own Supra brand of finishing kit which adorns the Umbria.
It's perfectly possible that if I'd been riding Bontrager wheels for years, I might have been uncertain about the little known Supra kit, but again, the Umbria is significantly lighter than my previous ride, and as comfortable as any other bike I've ridden in the last two years: I'd struggle to construct an argument that says the finishing kit isn't doing what it should. It's possible that when I upgrade the wheels or change the seatpost I might suddenly notice a massive pickup in acceleration or reduction in arse-buzz, but as I've currently got no complaints on either of those fronts, I'm not going to fabricate some now just for the sake of something to moan about.
The long top-tube and wide bars aren't going to suit a rider who's 5' 10" the way they suit me at 6' 2". The triple chainset and old fashioned big, straight tubes won't do much for the fashion conscious or scientifically minded, and it's quite likely that swapping out some of the Supra components in favour of premium brands will be necessary if you're the type who gets hung up on grams.
On the other hand, you'll struggle to find a bike that rides as nicely for anything like this price. It's a comfortable, responsive bike that climbs and cruises easily. It's competitive if not class-leading when it comes to weight. The combination of fat round tubes, full size frame and short rear triangle give it a late 90s look that I'd take in preference to any modern frame, and it squeezes an incredible set of components onboard without making any fatal compromises elsewhere to cover the cost. It rides as well as bikes costing significantly more, and finds a nice balance between between being nippy and comfortable, with the emphasis on nippy. It's also got me hitting the roads in temperatures which would normally make me opt for a stationary bike, which is probably the most telling point in it's favour - you'll want to ride it. It won't be exercise, or training, or transport, it will be fun.